(This post is part of a series chronicling my Women on the Verge journey. Read all updates in the series.)
I, me, mine….
Recently my mother-in-law gave me a photograph she’d come across that had been taken at a wedding we both attended 20+ years ago. When I saw myself in the photo, I was astonished. Not because it was like a time capsule that transported me a couple decades back in time, but because of how I thought I looked…Great!
Now that’s saying a lot because I’ve always been highly critical of my appearance, especially in photographs. A photo freezes a person in a single moment where, as someone who has been dissatisfied by her looks since virtually day one, every perceived flaw can be pointed out and obsessed upon. There are only a handful of photos of me that I deem acceptable since I hit puberty.
I received the message early on that there was something different about the way I looked. I developed “nursing bottle mouth” (from drinking from a bottle too long) which decayed my front baby teeth, making me self-conscious about smiling. A close friend of one of my sisters told me my nose was big when I was six. My hair was problematic – never conforming to popular styles. My older sisters provided conflicting intel about my appearance: I should keep myself tidy, but that it was vain to “primp.” Then came the braces! And Mom’s non-affirming advice for school picture day to “smile with my eyes.” As a uniform-wearing Catholic school-attending girl, my at-home wardrobe was severely lacking. I never felt at home in my own skin, or with what I had to work with.
At the age of 13, I started public school. No more uniforms! My teeth were looking good! I could wear makeup! Yet the damage to my psyche was done. To my mind, there was always something wrong, unconventional, different… about my appearance. Pretty girls got attention and praise for being so and, since I didn’t, I concluded, I must be inherently flawed or less worthy. I felt inferior and invisible by default. No one ever told me that the way I looked was fine, not abhorrent, within the realm of normal… I really needed to hear that – but it never came. In its absence, I filled in the blanks with self-critical assessment and judgement.
My first husband was quite forthcoming when it came to pointing out the flaws he perceived in my appearance – and of course I took his opinion to heart as well. And why wouldn’t I? They just reflected and reinforced my own terrible self image.
It’s not surprising then, that every photo I saw throughout my life reminded me of what I didn’t like about my appearance. I winced every time I saw a photo of myself as it provided physical proof of my ugliness. As an adult, I suppose I try to make myself as attractive as possible and hope for the best, thinking, I may not be pretty, but it’s not for lack of trying. Maybe I get some credit for that… Yet when I see a photo of myself, I’m horrified as to how there could be such a discrepancy between what I see in the mirror and what the camera lens invariably captures.
Until this one. This one was different. At last, a photo that showed what I thought I looked like, and it was – shockingly – ok.
There I was, looking, if not gorgeous, EXACTLY as I’d hoped I did that day. Polished, put-together, maybe a little glamorous (not to mention happy and relaxed). Interestingly, I have another photo with Scott from this same event, taken by someone else with a different camera. I didn’t (and still don’t) see a particularly attractive – or accurate – image of me in that one. But this other shot…this one does match what I’d seen in the mirror while dolling myself up for this wedding. This one doesn’t reinforce my belief that, at best, I’m a troll, no matter how much I conceal, highlight, style or gloss.
Why is this photo different from so many other photos I’ve hated of myself? I have no idea. But here it is, evidence that flies in the face of a fact I’ve believed to be true my whole life: That I’m an non-photogenic freak. A photo that shows me a new truth. It’s as if I’ve seen my own face for the first time. Or maybe with new eyes. It’s a powerful revelation knowing that this is possible.
How many other “facts” about myself am I seeing through old eyes, or a distorted lens? Maybe I’ve taken those things for granted about myself, with an outdated perspective. What else could I accept – even love – about myself by revisiting existing notions? Or by looking at them from another angle or viewpoint?
All it takes is the shift to happen, for whatever reason, to convince me that I don’t have to be stuck in a place where self-hatred defines and dominates me. Through these new eyes, I see the real me. And I’m free of that burden I’ve dragged along with me my whole life.
“By God, when you see your beauty you will be the idol of yourself.” ~Rumi